Warning to US Congress members: Deviate from mainstream orthodoxy vis-à-vis Israel and soon discover that you will be the target of accusations and sustained attacks. This, Rep. Ilhan Omar learned early in her first term in Congress. She and Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, who are both Muslim, became the targets of Republican accusations of anti-Semitism because of their criticisms of Israel’s brutal violations of Palestinian human rights and the Congresswomen’s support for the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
Another warning to US Congress members: Deviate from “the party line” and be prepared for members to orchestrate challenges for your seat. As early as March 2019, several Minnesotan Democrats, e.g., State Senator Ron Latz (D) and Steve Hunegs of the Jewish Community Relations Council, sought to find a challenger to Omar for this year’s DFL primary. Two African-American legislators were approached as potential candidates, but neither took the bait.
Congressional history is replete with examples of members who have been condemned by pro-Israel groups because of their criticisms of Israel and their support of human rights for Palestinians. Some have seen their legislative careers under threat and even ended with the help of pro-Israel entities. Past legislators who suffered from the ire of these groups are Adlai Stevenson III, Paul Findley, Charles Percy, Earl Hilliard (first African American representing Alabama since Reconstruction), Cynthia McKinney, and Dennis Kucinich, and more recently, Keith Ellison and Betty McCollum.
In 2002, four-term Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, the first African-American woman to represent Georgia, found herself in a tight Democratic primary against a newcomer to electoral politics. McKinney’s outspokenness in calling “for real debate on the Middle East” provoked backlash from pro-Israel groups who sought to defeat her by backing an African-American challenger. Huge financial support from these groups was one factor leading to her defeat; however, she was re-elected to Congress the following term.
In 2019, Rep. Ilhan Omar’s mere presence as the first Somali American, former refugee, hijab-wearing Muslim in Congress has evoked some visceral levels of enmity—Islamophobia, racism, and xenophobia. Within this context, the Court of Public Opinion was prey to a deceptive narrative that was hijacked in lightning speed, thus passing judgment on Omar as someone who harbored anti-Semitic beliefs and opinions.
Here are the facts, some of which were misconstrued in the narrative. GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy threatened punishment of Omar and Tlaib. Prominent journalist Glenn Greenwald tweeted, “It’s stunning how much time US political leaders spend defending a foreign nation even if it means attacking free speech rights of Americans.” Omar then tweeted that McCarthy’s tactics are “all about the Benjamins baby.”
Batya Ungar-Sargon, opinion editor for The Forward (a pro-Israel Jewish publication), entered the exchange, challenging Omar, who does she think “is paying American politicians to be pro-Israel,” and immediately accusing Omar of tweeting an “anti-Semitic trope.” Thus, the “anti-Semitic” accusation effectively took the narrative on an ominous path. Surely unaware of the road she’d soon travel, Omar succinctly replied, “AIPAC!” (Cited as an influential voice, Ungar-Sargon was later criticized by Jewish and Palestinian activists for contributing to “the conflation of Israel critics with anti-Semitic hate groups” and serving as a source to tarnish Omar’s reputation.) And then the pile-on began with voices and actions from Democrats and Republicans alike.
Reminiscent of the McKinney saga, a political newcomer has now become a leading challenger to unseat incumbent Rep. Omar. Antone Melton-Meaux’s debut on the local and national political stage has earned him endorsements by several prominent, establishment DFL Minnesotans, and he has already received donations of nearly $500K. (Omar has raised more than $3 million, but she is incumbent.)
On his website the challenger describes himself as “a progressive,” but in discussing the issues, Melton-Meaux has not adopted the progressive Democratic policies of Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, cancellation of all student debt, policies at the core of Omar’s work in Congress.
The challenger’s policy perspectives under the broad topic “Global Affairs” are limited to the single focus and title, “Israel/Palestine.” Phrases like “Israel . . . a beacon of liberal democracy;” Israel “recognize(s) the rights of every citizen regardless of race . . .;” Israel “believe(s) in . . .the rule of law” pop from the page. But in expressing the requisite opposition to BDS, he does not acknowledge the context and reason for this Palestinian-led, South African-inspired movement.
In finally discussing Palestinians, Melton-Meaux spouts support for the nearly defunct two-state solution, rejected by a majority of Jewish Israelis. He believes America is capable of “acting as an honest broker,” a role it hasn’t played in decades. And in responding to the oppressive, brutal occupation forced upon millions of Palestinians, he speaks of easing “the pressure of occupation on Palestinians,” but never advocates for its end. Hence, here is a so-called “progressive” African American, who surely knows the history of American apartheid, if not lived it, but who condones policies that reinforce a second-class, subordinate, unequal existence for Palestinians.
For anyone who has paid attention to how politicians speak about Israel/Palestine in advancing legislation that favors Israel, it is clear that Omar’s challenger is repeating the talking points of pro-Israel lobbyists. Thus, his willingness to promote a pro-Israel position has earned him a potentially-lucrative endorsement from Pro-Israel America. This influential PAC, run by two former officials of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), steers donations from its nationwide network of members to candidates who adopt pro-Israel positions.
Absent from Melton-Meaux’s website is Pro-Israel America’s endorsement, but the PAC’s endorsement is based on its opposition to Rep. Omar—her foreign policy positions and backing of pro-Palestinian policies designed to free Palestinians by ending the Israeli occupation. But for Pro-Israel America these policies are projected as anti-Israel (it says Omar “voted against condemning the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement that seeks to cripple the Jewish state of Israel”).
Attention Court of Public Opinion: Now you have the accurate narrative. When Rep. Ilhan Omar tweeted, “It’s all about the Benjamins baby,” she knew she was right and her congressional colleagues did too. History told them so. Ungar-Sargon’s question is answered: Omar’s challenger is a breathing, living example of the problem of “paying American politicians to be pro-Israel.”